Monday, January 10, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Year: 1966
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 67
Writer: Ernest Lehmen (adaptation), Edward Albee (play)
Director: Mike Nichols
Star: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is an ugly movie made by a group of self-satisfied artists who believed that just saying a bunch of swear words, gaining a few pounds and being generally despicable in bad lighting was the equivalent of making a masterpiece. Everything about the film points proudly to itself as being groundbreaking, smart and button-pushing…but all that is for naught if the viewer doesn’t connect with the characters or story.

The self-satisfaction begins with the main titles, which are just about the biggest main titles I’ve seen. All the main actors and above-the-line creative-types have names that take up almost the entire screen. They are, in essence, inescapable. Things go downhill from there. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton show up looking puffy and not like themselves then proceed to do a less-funny version of the “What’s that movie?” scene from “Rope,” except with cursing and insults.

Taylor plays Martha!, who doesn’t technically have an exclamation point after her name but might has well. She’s loud, louder and “time to mute your television.” The character is the daughter of the local university’s president, but mostly an alcoholic. Overacting would be an understatement for Taylor’s performance here: she’s not playing to the balcony but to a theatre halfway down the street. Burton plays George, who isn’t as loud of Martha!, but makes up for it with his acid-tongue and delusion that he is always the smartest person in the room. He’s also a professor at the university her father runs. There isn’t a moment in the film where they seem happy, but we can understand why they are together. Misery loves company, so they must throw some great parties. Alas, the party in this film isn’t one of them.

Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a movie that tries to test the boundaries of taste and allows its main actors to appear as less than their usually glamorous selves. I have a problem with a movie that does these things for no apparent reason. The two heinous individuals that I have just described have invited an innocuous, boring couple new to the town and college. The husband Nick (George Segal) is boringly handsome, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) is an excitable lightweight. Martha! and George spend the next several hours relentlessly torturing the couple because…well…because they have nothing better to do, I suppose.

There’s no driving force to the story, no reason we should care about any of the characters and no surprises in store for anyone. Yes, George and Martha! have one hidden secret that is set up so obviously it’s almost laughable. I’m sure writer Ernest Lehmen (who wrote the wonderful “North By Northwest,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “West Side Story” and other great movies) didn’t write the line “Don’t say anything about…OUR SON!” with the ellipsis and capital letters, but you get the idea. The movie simply clunks from one insult to another, with only alcohol refills and more insults thrown in as a buffer. We learn that, “surprise surprise,” Nick isn’t exactly happy with his marriage, which is * yawn * so shocking. Nick tells George certain things and, of course, George immediately tells Honey in order to hurt their marriage. At one point the screenwriter tries to mix things up and make the movie seem less like the play that inspired it (it doesn’t work), by having the foursome go to a dance bar for another scene of insults that might as well have been back at the house.

Even within the movie’s own almost-nonexistent logic it doesn’t work. George keeps blackmailing Nick and Honey into staying by threatening to talk to Martha!’s father and get Nick fired if they leave. Earlier in the film, however, Martha! informed Nick that her father loathed George, and Martha! isn’t trying to make the couple stay. Huh.

As if two hours of endless rants, raves and verbal abuse wasn’t enough, the dialogue is written in such an uppity, condescending manner. Everyone gets their pompous, overwritten monologue about how unhappy life has made them, and the movie even goes so far as to have Burton reciting Latin phrases while Taylor speaks hers. Was the point of all this torture on both the characters and the viewers really that George and Martha! had fabricated their child? Really?

You know a movie is in trouble when you begin to ignore the dialogue and start staring at the corners of the sets, and indeed the house set for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a great one. It seems lived in and it seems like great attention has been paid to every detail. And yes, production design will be the only thing I compliment about the movie.

The acting…well, let’s just say you can tell it’s acting. I’ve already mentioned Taylor’s overacting, but Burton commits just as grievous a sin by making his work bipolar; he either underplays it or screams every syllable. Dennis is tedious and annoying, and Segal is handsome but forgettable. Nichols’ work makes the film seem at times like a comedy, but more often than not his tipped frames and odd angles make the proceedings seem like a thriller, which this is not.

The entire movie is so self-important it would be laughable if it was not torturous. It tries so hard to make us think it’s saying something, but what that is remains unclear. Even the title, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” remains a mystery they didn’t bother to explain. Sure, it’s an in-joke from the party the four main players attended, but what else? Why was that phrase so important it just had to be the title? Anyone? The film is a lot of bombast and screaming, but in the end all that amounts to is the sound of one hand clapping.

My Score (out of five): *

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